“In the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king’s palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote. Then the king’s countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another.” — Daniel 5:5-6
The phrase, “the writing on the wall” is an idiom that describes signs of approaching doom or expresses a presentiment that catastrophe is about to occur. Often the phrase indicates a person’s ability or inability to recognize that calamity is approaching. For example, it might be said, “The corporation was bleeding money, and when the CEO’s assistant saw the writing on the wall, she started to look for another job.”
Many who use that phrase may not know that it has a Biblical origin. It has its roots in our text for today — the account of an event that took place thousands of years ago in the ancient land of Babylon. As Belshazzar, king of that doomed world power, was indulging in drunken revelry and debasing sacred Jewish Temple vessels by using them as wine goblets, a hand appeared and wrote the words “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN” on the palace wall.
Our focus verses describe the terror that gripped the king at this astonishing event: “the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another.” Although the writing on the wall consisted of only three words in Aramaic (a language understood by the Babylonians), the king’s pagan astrologers and soothsayers were unable to explain the phrase’s prophetic meaning. Their inability troubled the king further. Perhaps he sensed that the mysterious communication had some connection with his flagrantly blasphemous actions or the fact that the Persian armies were encamped around his city.
The queen came into the banquet hall and urged Belshazzar to seek an interpretation from the elderly Daniel, stating that he was a man “in whom is the spirit of the holy gods” and asserting that “knowledge, and understanding, interpreting of dreams, and shewing of hard sentences, and dissolving of doubts, were found in the same Daniel” (verses 11-12). How interesting that this queen mother of an idolatrous empire had such confidence in Daniel’s ability to reveal the answer to the strange mystery written on the wall! Heeding her counsel, Belshazzar called for Daniel and promised him riches and honor if he would interpret the message.
Too often world leaders today, like Belshazzar, demonstrate reckless disregard for God and even outright rejection of His Word and His people. However, God is still in control! He is sovereign, and He is well able to intervene — at times even in dramatic ways — to bring about His purposes.
Today’s passage covers Belshazzar’s feast, the appearance of the writing on the wall, the failure of the king’s wise men to interpret the message, and Daniel’s summons before the king at the recommendation of the queen.
While Nebuchadnezzar is referred to in several places in this text as the “father” of Belshazzar, in that era and culture the term father could denote a variety of relationships. Belshazzar would have known about Nebuchadnezzar’s humbling by God, for no more than twenty-five years had elapsed since that event. Nebuchadnezzar’s son, Evil-Merodach, followed him, ruling for two years. Next on the throne was Neriglassar, who was in power for four years, and then Labashi-Marduk, reigning less than one year, and then Belshazzar’s father, Nabonidus, who ruled for seventeen years. During part of Nabonidus’ rule, Belshazzar co-reigned with him, and at the time of today’s text, Belshazzar was regent of the city of Babylon. According to historical records, he was known for his reckless extravagance and cruelty. He appears and disappears from Biblical history in this one chapter.
The events in this chapter took place in 539 B.C. At the time, Babylon was under siege by the Persian army. While the territories around Babylon had fallen one by one into the hands of the combined forces of the Medes and Persians, Belshazzar seemingly felt the city was fortified enough to withstand an assault of any kind. Archaeologists have found that the city had provisions to supply the populace for twenty years and an inexhaustible water supply, so likely the king felt secure. It was possibly to demonstrate his disdain for the threat of the surrounding armies that Belshazzar hosted the great feast for a thousand of his lords (verse 1).
Archeologists have discovered the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, which included a large throne room 56 feet wide and 173 feet long. Likely, this was the scene of the banquet described in today’s text.
In the course of the feast, Belshazzar followed a reckless and profane impulse and ordered that the sacred vessels of the Jerusalem Temple (plundered by Nebuchadnezzar fifty years earlier) be brought for use at his banquet. This sacrilegious act was accompanied by drunkenness, debauchery, and idolatry, as the guests at the feast “praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone” (verse 4).
The queen referred to in verse 10 was not Belshazzar’s wife, as his wives were already present at the banquet (see verse 3). Historians feel this likely was the queen mother, Nitocris. Though the king’s wise men had been unable to interpret the meaning of the writing on the wall, she expressed confidence in Daniel’s ability to do so and urged the king to summon him to the banquet hall.
II. The prophetic history of the Gentiles
D. The destruction of Belshazzar (the final doom of Gentile world power)
1. The feast of the king (5:1-4)
2. The revelation to the king (5:5-12)
a. The mysterious writing (5:5-6)
b. The king’s decree (5:7)
c. The wise men’s failure (5:8-9)
d. The queen’s recommendation (5:10-12)
3. The summons of Daniel before the king (5:13-16)
Disrespect and defiance of God by those in positions of worldly power and influence are noted by God and will ultimately be judged by Him.